Making up for lost time

More news about: Hardin-Simmons
Hardin-Simmons' ZaVious Robbins
ZaVious Robbins and Hardin-Simmons are trying to erase memories of a painful '09.
Hardin-Simmons athletics photo

The expectations were high and so was their ranking. At 1-0, the Hardin-Simmons Cowboys entered their Sept. 12 matchup at Linfield in McMinnville, Oregon last season ranked fifth in the nation and coming off a playoff berth in 2008.

Sure, they had lost in the first round again to conference archrival and nemesis Mary Hardin Baylor, 38-35. But heck, the Crusaders, who then advanced all the way to the semifinals, had only beaten them 20-18, during the regular season.

Surely, with seniors like quarterback Justin Feaster and receiver ZaVious Robbins, 2009 was the year that the Cowboys would end UMHB’s five years of dominance in the American Southwest Conference and make a deep playoff run of their own.

But on that afternoon, Hardin-Simmons fortunes took a turn for the worse in a 37-22 loss to the Wildcats. Both Feaster and Robbins went down with what turned out to be season-ending injuries as did several other important players.  

 “It was definitely humbling, one of the most humbling things in our lives,” said Robbins who has roomed with Feaster for the past three years. “When I got hurt, I didn’t realize it until I started to run back to get ready for the next play. I came off to the sideline and the trainer told me I tore my ACL. I went in and put on my travel cloths and came back out and was crying on Feaster’s shoulder. He’s sitting there say ‘we’re going to do this for you.’

“In the second half, he got hurt and he comes to the sideline and now he’s crying on my shoulder. We don’t know what’s going to happen from this point forward. It was a long flight back. Our house was not a very nice place to be. There was a lot of ice in our house. Once we figured out that our injuries too damaging to come back, we promised each other that we were going to work out together as hard as we could.”

That commitment helped to push the roommates through the grueling rehab.

“Last year was a hard year for both of us,” said Feaster, who had injured his shoulder. “We faced a lot of adversity. We wanted to come back this year stronger than ever, so all through last year and the offseason we were rehabbing together.”

But even coming back was not assured. Feaster, who transferred after a year at North Texas, would have to apply for a medical red-shirt not always given to players in their sixth year. And in the case of Robbins, you just never know with knee injuries. Meanwhile, the Cowboys lost four games in a row, watching a season of promise and expectation go down in flames.

“You see your whole career flash before your eyes,” Robbins said. “Because you don’t know get the red-shirt or not until the middle of the summer sometimes. It’s like watching everything pass you by. You know that you were taking things for granted at some point and it just makes you cherish the moment a whole lot more.”

Still the seniors tried to stay involved with the program.

“Any time you have that kind of injury it’s always going to be tough on the team,” Feaster said. “We had to go back to the drawing board as a team, change our offensive scheme and how we felt we could score more points and put ourselves in a position to win.

“We were both captains at the time and those were hard times for us, but the only thing we could do was keep being leaders on the team and encourage those guys to do the best that they could.”

“It’s a bad feeling, bad feeling,” Robbins added. “Nobody wants to watch their team that has such high expectations take the turn that we did last year.”

Still, though it didn’t seem like it at the time, last season’s crash has had a direct effect on the team’s success so far this season and play of the quarterback/receiver duo. Hardin-Simmons righted the ship last season winning their last five games to finish at 6-4. They also were able develop their running game with veteran backs Stephen Rockwell and Derrick Grant. The result has been a more balanced offensive unit so far this season.

“We’ve been more balanced the last three games” Feaster said.” That puts us in a better position to win ball games. All of our guys are about the team and not about individual accomplishments.”

And with a 3-0 start this year against one of the toughest schedules in Division III, the connection the pair shared during offseason recovery has carried over on to the field. Feaster and Robbins have connected 29 times for 354 yards and a touchdown thus far.

“I feel over the last three or four years we’ve gained a sort of chemistry on and off the field,” Feaster said. “I always know where he’s going to be and he always seems to find open spots. I am just glad to have a receiver and a friend like ZaVious who is such as great guy and a great competitor.”

And the pair left little doubt that they were fully recovered in the season opener against game Whitworth. They had connected eight times for 113 yards in the first half alone in the Cowboys' 27-7 victory in the Pacific Northwest. Feaster finished 18-of-23 on the day for 236 yards with a touchdown, while Robbins ended with 10 catches for 134 yards.

Since then the combination has continued to click in wins against 13th-ranked Williamette and 19th-ranked Mississippi College. Feaster is completing 77 percent of his passes for 859 yards with four touchdowns, while Robbins is among the nation’s leading receivers with 29 receptions for 354 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown. Meanwhile, the running game has also flourished as Grant and Rockwell have combined to average 105 yards a game.

“Right now, our team is excited about the position we are in,” Feaster said. “We feel like we’ve worked extremely hard to get where we are at.

“Zavious knows how to play the game and he’s an awesome competitor. We feel like some our best athletes are at the receiver position, if we can get them the ball quickly and let them do the work (we’ll be successful.)”

“We’ve been working out together since the day after that (Linfield) game,” added Robbins, who has gone from 135-pound freshman to a 175-pound fifth year senior.” It’s been amazing and I think it’s starting to show.”

As they enter this week’s game against rival Mary Hardin-Baylor, the duo knows it will take another superior team effort to knock off the fifth-ranked Crusaders.

“We have nothing but respect for those guys and their program,” Feaster said. “Every year they’re always a great football team.

“We always know they are going to give us their best game every time they step on the field. Whenever you play those guys you know one thing, both teams are going to come to play as hard as they can. They key is to eliminate mental mistakes and turnovers. If we can go out and do that, we’ll put ourselves in a good position to win.”

“Coming in as a freshman, this is the game you hear about — the Mary Hardin-Baylor/Hardin-Simmons rivalry,” Robbins said. “This is the fifth time I’ve played them and we’ve haven’t beat them yet.

“It definitely puts a chip on my shoulder. It means so much not only to the Hardin-Simmons tradition but to this season alone. We have a lot of big goals we want to accomplish. In order to accomplish those we have to go through them.”

“Absolutely, that’s one of our goals every year--- to win the conference,” Feaster agreed. “We haven’t been able to do that the last five years so the desire is there and we’re hungry. I feel like we’ve got a great team this year.”

And for Robbins the game is more than a matter school pride. His step-brother Ben Beckworth is a starting linebacker for the Crusaders. The two will line up across from one another on Saturday. Robbins will have to block Beckworth, while Beckworth will have to tackle Robbins.

“I talk to him every week, except for this one,” Robbins said. “It adds a level intensity because you don’t want to be beat by your brother.

“That’s something you’ll have to hear for the rest of your life. He’s got all the rings so I hear it every time I see him. It’s fun, but it would be nice to be able to laugh too. He’s the one getting to do all the laughing now. Maybe we’ll be able to laugh together at some point.”

But even if Robbins can’t get the last laugh in his brother this Saturday, both he and Feaster are thankful to be able to spend another season as members of the Hardin-Simmons football family. They both know that their college careers could end in an instant. And that makes the moments of their second senior year all the more precious.

“You take a different approach to practice and the relationships you build in the locker room,” Robbins said. “You definitely don’t take anything for granted once you see what we saw last year.”

Games of the Week
Hardin-Simmons (3-0) at Mary Hardin-Baylor (2-0).
The Crusaders have had to come from behind in both of their first two contests, while the Cowboys have beaten ranked teams the past two weeks.

Millsaps (1-2) at Trinity (1-1). After two tough loses, the Majors opened the SCAC slate with a win over Austin getting new coach Aaron Pelch his first win. The Tigers, who were upset by Rhodes in their SCAC opener will need more than a “miracle” to take home the conference crown if they don’t win this one.

Centre (1-2) at Austin (2-1). The loser of this game is probably out of the conference race since both lost SCAC openers last week.

Birmingham-Southern (2-0) at Huntingdon (3-0). Hey! Alabama and Auburn aren’t the only undefeated teams in the state. It’s the “Iron Bowl” Division III style.

Texas Lutheran (1-1) at Howard Payne (1-2). The Bulldogs got new coach Danny Padron his first win and the program its first victory since 2008 by upsetting East Texas Baptist 17-14 last week. The Yellow Jackets are hoping to turn it around after losing two games in the past three weeks by a total of 13 points.

Louisiana College (0-2) at Mississippi College (2-1). The Wildcats have scored 90 points during their first two close loses, but can they stop anyone? The Choctaws are regrouping too after getting whipped at Hardin-Simmons last week. Expect lots of scoring.

McMurry (2-1) at East Texas Baptist (1-2). Last year, McMurry broke their 17-game losing streak by beating the Tigers in Abilene. Then last week, ETBU loses to Texas Lutheran to snap their 14-game skid. ETBU is a team that beat UW-La Crosse in its opener. And La Crosse nearly beat Mary Hardin-Baylor the following week. Which Tiger team shows up?

Sewanee (1-2) at DePauw (2-0). The Tennessee Tigers take on the Indiana Tigers after being outscored 86-17 the past two weeks. You wouldn’t expect DePauw, defending SCAC co champs, to have much problem in this one.

LaGrange (1-2) at North Carolina Wesleyan (0-2). It could be a tough week for the Panthers as they travel to the defending USA South champs for their home opener. The Bishops lost tight games to Salisbury and Hamden-Sydney and have had two weeks to stew over it. Of course, LaGrange did beat Millsaps a couple weeks ago, but last week’s loss to a Maryville team that had been outscored 89-3 the first two weeks makes you scratch your head.

Contact Info
Feel free to send me your comments at jason.bowen@d3sports.com. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter @d3jason. Hope you have a great weekend.

Brian Lester

Brian Lester is a reporter in Florida. He has 14 years of experience at newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, spending 10 at The Courier in Findlay, Ohio. Lester also writes an Around the Region column for D3hoops.com and wrote Around the Great Lakes for D3football.com from 2012-14. He is a graduate of Eastern Illinois.

2014 columnist: Justin Goldberg
2013 columnist: Andee Djuric
2012 columnist: Kyle Robarts
2008-11 columnist: Jason Bowen

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